The American Agenda in Afghanistan: a Civilian’s Review
One thing true we can say about war is that truth is its greatest casualty.
I am a volunteer teacher. Four years ago I responded to a call from then candidate Barack Obama for a new kind of soldier to wage peace, one without a uniform, without a gun. On the three-year anniversary of my moving in with the orphans here in Afghanistan, I listened to gun battle and explosions in my Kabul neighborhood for ten hours through the night and into the morning. While CNN reported the insurgency event had ended I shook my head. “Nope,” I muttered to myself, listening to stray bullets fly over my room.
Two weeks later, President Obama swung through for what appeared to be his first re-election stump speech. Unannounced under the dark of midnight he signed his agreement with Karzai. Then he was gone before dawn. This cloak and dagger visit didn’t particularly highlight peace and security unfolding across the nation. In his speech Obama maintained an end to America’s longest war is in sight. Here are a few realities he neglected to mention in his speech, and I will share them in the authoritative, patriarchal, father knows best manner in which Obama shared his very fuzzy assurances—
“One” there are 400 American military bases of one sort or another in Afghanistan.
“Two” out of the 3,005 coalition military fatalities in this war, 1,956 have occurred in the time since my arrival here. That’s 65% of all military fatalities in the 10½ year war occurring in the last three years.
“Three” 2011 saw the greatest single year in civilian deaths for the entire war.
“Four” The U.S. just signed a twelve-year agreement beyond the next two years that is shadowy in its lack of details. It maintains the U.S. will fall back into a “supporting” role, while Afghan forces take over security operations. It is a partnership that resembles in every way a prolonged occupation.
Contemplating these facts it is difficult to fathom a light at the end of this tunnel, and just how the U.S. is planning to exit. Do not expect an Iraq-like drawdown. That drawdown was strategically inconsequential, seeing as the U.S. simply moved its buildup to nearby Kuwait bases and the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad was beefed up to stand as a proxy base of operation. Afghanistan stands solidly alone in the heart of American geo-political interests. The signed agreement assures that interest will be assuaged. Insult to injury it seems terribly convenient for America to have Afghans bear the brunt of NATO’s failed policy on the front lines while we maintain bases of operation, including drones and special forces able to engage in missions to Pakistan and Iran. And of course, if we want or need to, we always reserve the right to move back into the seat at the helm of operations in-country. We have our cake, we eat it too.
With bases still in Cuba, El Salvador, Columbia, Germany, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Kuwait (and even talks of a base in Vietnam) there is not a shred of historical evidence America intends to ever leave a country it invades. I cannot help but assume, wherein as much as 70% of Americans now oppose this war, that in order to appease that vast majority in an election year Obama essentially lied in his speech by using nuanced language that raises only questions, not answers.
Our Peace Prize recipient at one time or another in his tenure as President has dropped bombs (that we know of) on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Pakistan, six Moslem countries. He increased troops in Afghanistan to over a hundred thousand. He has refined and mainstreamed the unilateral use of drone warfare all over the world, paving the way, experts in law enforcement predict, for these drones to be used on Americans in American cities for their own security. At home the militarization of law enforcement has continued while the White House remains silent about pepper spraying, club waving police. Whatever his plans are, his record thus far is clear. Mr. Obama is the most war mongering Commander in Chief we have seen in decades.
Part of the problem I have with my could-have-been hero that I voted for is that it turns out Mr. Obama is not the type of lawyer that wants to go to trial. He is the lawyer that wants to make a deal in the back room without ever having to actually go to trial. We the jurors, we the people are not allowed to judge, whether it be bailing out Wall Street, selling out health care reform, executing war without legally declaring it, the unsanctioned use of drones in sovereign nations, or assassinating an America citizen without any due process. This is disappointing on many levels. I and most people were so impressed by Obama’s oratory skills we all envisioned a Gregory Peck or Al Pacino or Paul Newman giving his closing remarks in the public arena, leading the nation into a new era. Instead we got a man that does all he can to sustain the status quo of post Cold War era America: Empire and the appeasement of the real power in America that has for forty years been accumulating at the very top of the pyramid.
Nobody actually knows exactly how many military installations the U.S. maintains worldwide. The military, often so good about numbers, does not divulge. But there is reason to estimate over a thousand. Go to this link.
What we do know for certain is this startling fact: in 2011 the U.S. spent 711 billion dollars on its defense. The next 14 highest spenders on military (China, Russia, U.K., France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Turkey) combined spent 698.7 Billion. Obama presides over the largest most powerful empire in human history. And he’s not afraid to use it.
This will be the first presidential election as an adult I will not vote in. It is I am saddened to believe, virtually meaningless who wins. The good people of America have been lied to, duped, seduced, drugged and misled for so long they simply are too exasperated to get at the truth. Thus they remain at the mercy of the powerful and mega rich and oddly, given the Internet, beholden to a tremendous lack of information. There is, however a plethora of misinformation and misdirection, news to be sold, and the standard rallying cry of “remember 9/11”. The occupy movement has been reduced by pundits and media to a bunch of silly unfocused people with nothing important to say and who needlessly interrupt normalcy. I simply can’t participate in America’s antics any more, I can’t buy into it, pay taxes to it, or consume its offerings any more. Thus one partial and small reason I remain in Afghanistan as a volunteer educator of orphan children. I live alone in a room. I eat beans and rice. I shower once a week. I see no westerners, only Afghans. I have no pension, no income, little savings, and no inheritance. I don’t own property either. I don’t exist in terms of the American Dream. Living in my own country my life would be meaningless. Many people there actually pity me. But here, even though I possess nothing my existence means something.
I’m not really much of a political animal. I operate on a different humanist front. I teach these Afghan kids, I write. But secretly I wouldn’t mind becoming an activist more directly, rallying in the streets, writing speeches. My trepidation about all-out revolution is its inevitable hubris; it seems revolution invariably gets hijacked by another gang of thieves. As a Polish reporter once told me, “revolution swallows its children”. But it is social revolution in America that makes amendments to its constitution, so perhaps there is a way. Jefferson’s mandate was right, revolution every couple of years. The U.S. requires a serious revolution. It refuses to take any sort of definitive action let alone a leadership role in what to me are the three biggest threats to Americans: preventing global environmental catastrophe, addressing the comodification of our own democracy and the escalating armament of the world. I worry, though, that we will not make the changes necessary unless unemployment spikes to 20% and gas costs $6 a gallon. The powerful will keep those two things from happening for as long as possible, even if it means dropping bombs on every continent to do it. Until then people will go along thinking they still live the American Dream. It is the youth that bring necessary change to society, but the youth in America seem by and large consumed by individualism, plugged in, taking care of what’s theirs. Soon I know will come a generation that will have the ideological streak to sacrifice all. Then the old order better watch out.
My only recourse is to peacefully enrich these amazing Afghan children. I do not indoctrinate them to these kinds of views I express here. I do what most any teacher wants to do, I empower, embolden them to fall in love with learning, to seek truth and wisdom and to make their own educated decisions based upon these things in conjunction with an appreciation of universal human rights and ethics.
Every single day on my way to the orphanage I see dozens of children picking through garbage and begging, one legged men holding hands out, women cloaked in burqas, or chardaris, pleading for food. I see garbage and sewage everywhere, while the few making millions off this war build mansion after mansion and drive around in $100,000 SUVs. Men willing to work for a dollar a day line the streets vying for the one job today. Electricity still goes out in this capitol city every day. Some improvements are visible, open sewers rebuilt, streets paved, sidewalks laid, trees and roses planted. There’s a shiny new Parliament building on the hill. But these are minuscule improvements comparatively. For the most part, in one long breath this is what western taxpayers have unknowingly funded: the establishment of a police state for the maintenance and protection of a non-functioning and corrupt mega-bureaucracy dominated by war criminals, drug traffickers, human traffickers and even Taliban-like extreme fundamentalists set up to legitimize a parallel universe, a tiny minority indoctrinated into all the trappings of capitalism and consumerism and an oil-based economy.
Certainly, life here is dramatically improved over the dark age of the 1990’s, especially in Kabul. But is that to be the deciding gauge of success or failure, right or wrong? Does this warrant the continuation of policies that have brought us here?
Ten years after a plethora of powerful, wealthy nations took positions here, Afghanistan has the fifth lowest life expectancy in the world, reported at 48.6 years, and is one of only five countries in the world where a woman’s life expectancy is lower than a man’s. Only 23% of the population has regular access to drinking water. Only 24% of Afghans above the age of fifteen are literate, with much lower rates among women. One in three refugees worldwide are Afghan, totaling over 3 million. Internally there are 1.3 million refugees. Opium production in Afghanistan has steadily increased, now standing at 92% of world supply. Eighteen months ago Afghanistan still ranked as second poorest nation in the world. The UNDP’s human poverty index ranked Afghanistan at the bottom. 9 million Afghans, or 36% of the population live in absolute poverty, with the next 37% living slightly above poverty line. Over 57 billion dollars has been spent in Afghan aid, and that is a fraction of the money spent on the military effort. Where did the money go?
Afghanistan is the size of Texas, with only 29 million people. You tell me, Mr. President, what ten years, 46 nations, 130,000 troops and half a trillion dollars have done to help the Afghan people build a strong and peaceful democratic society?
Last year the Thomas Reuters Foundation listed Afghanistan as the worst, most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Only this week in its “World’s Mothers report” Save the Children ranked Afghanistan 164, second worst in the world to Niger. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world and third highest rate of child mortality. In Afghanistan it is legal for a man to withhold food or even rape his wife if she does not submit to him. Everywhere outside Kabul all women but the nomadic kuchi continue to be cloaked from head to toe in their mobile prisons, symbol for the call to save the women of Afghanistan, and even in the capitol many still wear the burqa. New Taliban laws are being approved by Karzai: a woman should not go out without a male, not work in workplace with males, should stay at home when possible. Television should not show women in the same room with men. Female journalists, actors, Members of Parliament, teachers, lawyers and activists are routinely threatened and even murdered. Only 13% of girls go to school, and of those 7% go beyond 8th grade. Two of every three girls are forced into marriage, most of them before the age of 16. Last year 88 girls self-immolated to escape their miserable lives.
Remember all the hubbub to save the women from Taliban atrocities and Sharia Laws? It was one of the rallying cries for all-out invasion, even though we were after a handful of ragtag extremists up in the mountains. The mainstream news networks persist in dampening down the fact that life for girls and women here is in some ways worse, and even degenerating. They instead report how things are improving. We are expected to see it as a glass half full when the ranking goes from worst in the world ten years ago to second worst in the world today?
The war’s problem is it has lost meaning. In fact a close examination would reveal it had no real meaning to begin with. Bomb an entire country and occupy it to get a few thousand bad guys that had already fled to the mountains? Supposed retribution for the 9/11 attacks? So how is it virtually all the high ranking culprits escaped, in particular through an American sanctioned and secret series of airlifts by Pakistan from the Kunduz area in November of 2001? The war’s meaning these days hinges on the prevention of the terrorist network to somehow re-establish itself in Afghanistan. The CIA maintains there are less than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the terrorist network has scattered to countries all over the world, already re-establishing itself while precious resources occupy Afghanistan. Today we bomb Pakistan while giving the country millions of dollars, plenty of which gets funneled through the ISI right to the extremists we are bombing. The very people we are training in the Afghan army are turning around and shooting their trainers. And now, there in Obama’s speech, we are having direct talks with the dreaded Taliban, offering them a power share. These are compelling and tragic ironies that suggest one of two things: either we are supremely incompetent and naïve, or there is some other agenda we don’t know about that somehow justifies this occupation in the minds of our leaders.
And just what is the occupation doing to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people? Put aside the vastly unpopular government we installed and prop up to this day. Out of 1,000 night time raids in two months last year, 350 supposed bad guys were apprehended. Do the math— how many innocent families were terrorized in the middle of the night, innocent people imprisoned, harassed, humiliated, or killed? For every one bad guy apprehended, how many bad guys created? Civilian deaths (that are actually counted) are higher now than in all previous years of the 9/11 induced war. Two thirds of these deaths are caused by insurgent activities. But given the absence of meaning does this justify the one third? How many civilians would be killed by either party if the U.S. were not stationing 400 bases here? Another argument is that if the west were not here there would be another civil war and a new nest created for terrorists. The fact is vast swaths of Afghanistan are already back under the control of Taliban factions, areas NATO has abandoned and the government ignores. Even more important to understand is that the civil war never actually ended. We simply took sides in that civil war between thug and thug (the enemy of our enemy is our friend) and have perpetuated it by ten years. Imagine if England and Spain and France all joined the weaker South in its efforts to defeat the North in America’s own civil war. How much longer would it have raged?
The average Afghan citizen may be illiterate but she or he is amazingly astute, politically, and is fully aware of all these empty stabs at meaning. Their hearts and minds are rapidly turning against America and its interests.
The absence of meaning is also on the minds of the men and women fighting this war. Suicide rates are worse than ever recorded. PTSD they say afflicts 1 out of every 5 soldiers and Marines. How much will the effects of ten years (or fifteen, or twenty years) and five or six tours of duty have on American society and taxpayers? How many years of therapy for those one in five, how much medication? What will happen to families? Will there be an increase in drug abuse, domestic violence? Most assuredly. How much medical attention for the amputees, the blinded, the poisoned for decades to come? Modern warfare has become efficient in preventing mortalities in the ranks compared to the Vietnam era and before. Mobile medical units save lives, sweep the injured away quickly. Some of the greatest advancements in surgery have been made due to war. But reduction of casualties means a huge increase in the walking wounded, scarred, or even emotionally dead. Now the fighters are demonized for shocking acts of insensitivity and even murder. It is not the fighter in the ranks we need interrogate over the fallout from this war, but the ones that instigated it, perpetuate it and lead it.
When there is a lack of meaning in war, it is symptomatic of the fact the reasons given for it are lies. We must go back and examine what is the real underlying reason for this war. President Eisenhower warned us in 1961, saying that we must temper the military industrial complex or it will threaten the very fabric of our democracy:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
He warned us what could happen. We didn’t listen. War is not ideological, it is economics. It is about protecting the money. War is business. It is a very large percent of the American economy. Of the present 3.8 trillion dollar budget proposal, 24% of spending is military. 22% on health, 22% on pensions, 12% on welfare and 20% on the rest (that’s interest on the deficit, education, roads and bridges, etc.) That equals 912 billion on military proposed for 2013. Where does that money go? How much do private security companies, weapons contractors, oil companies benefit? In fact just visit one of the mega bases in the world, little cities with health clubs, restaurants, stores, hospitals, airports and you’ll see just where some of this money goes.
We can’t afford not to be at war, economically speaking.
Look at arms sales to other countries: in 2010 the U.S. sold almost 171 billion dollars worth of arms overseas. The next highest exporter of arms was Russia at 81 billion. Then it goes way down to 37 billion by France. War is business all right, and nowhere is it so obvious as in Afghanistan. It smacks me (and Afghans) in the face every day.
It could have been different. Afghanistan was essentially a clean slate, albeit devastated. With some imagination and leadership (there certainly was plenty of muscle) this country could have skipped the 20th Century and gone straight to the 21st. What about sustainable energy projects, multiple small scale agricultural projects and modern methods of irrigation, manufacturing projects such as clothing and carpets made from home grown cotton? There was almost overnight an end to conflict and insurgency was non-existent. There could have been a disarming of all civil war era militias and the establishment of a court to prosecute war criminals, thereby gaining the trust of the people. A secular constitution could have been spawned. Rather than this huge push for major centralization of power and money, a de-centralized democracy in an already de-centralized social structure could have been promoted. Afghanistan had already evolved into a group of four or five small virtual republics, each led regionally but not lacking in leaders (ones without blood on their hands) that would have been committed to a united Afghanistan. It could have been led by educated, freedom loving Afghan men and women that were there, waiting in the wings but found themselves squeezed out of the government-forming proceedings.
What preoccupies the minds of Afghans? Just one perusal of the Kabul skyline and you will know. Along with the multiple enclaves of fortresses housing the diasporas of internationals living in isolation, siphoning 40 cents on the aide dollar right back to western bank accounts, there are lavish wedding halls, shopping centers, getaway offers to Dubai, spas, hotels and restaurants.
Now the West wants out, or at least to get away from having to take the heat or spend the money while maintaining its control and interests in the region. To a certain degree the die is cast. The civil war that never ended will continue. The power struggle with Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia and China will continue. The average citizen here will continue to suffer. The outlook for women is dismal.
There is one hope. Much will depend on the youth movements in Iran, Egypt and one that is growing here in Afghanistan. Where they take their countries will greatly depend upon who comes to their defense. Half the population in Afghanistan is under the age of 18. In a place where the average person is dead before 50, it is a certainty these children will decide their future regardless of where the weapons and money are stashed. In this matter, in this universally recognized graveyard of empires the Americans would do best to focus on education and opportunities for youth, protection and rights of girls, and on trying to hear the young voices rising up from the quagmire it has created.
The Truth is…
I teach my Afghan students in the orphanage that freedom does not simply mean doing what you feel like doing, even if within the law; it means having more responsibility. I also teach them that growth comes through acknowledgment and examination of our failures.
The U.S. government pays no attention to law anymore. It murders American citizens without trial (yes, the President signed into his powers the ability to have an American citizen assassinated if he or any future president deems that person a threat to security). America tortures, still. It invades privacy without a warrant. It invades countries illegally and under false pretenses. And America doggedly refuses to take responsibility for any of its multiple failures in this war, or any war.
America is like any other empire throughout history. I listened to the rhetoric of Obama’s speech last week and felt sick. When he admitted to direct negotiations with Taliban officials, he leaked the crack in all his posturing, a crack that turns the entire war on its head. The rest of his speech contained all the same old glory, glory and America getting better and bigger and shining like a beacon of Liberty for the world to emulate. He even had to bring up the “freedom” tower they are building on the World Trade Center site, taller and better. To me the new tower is merely a phallic symbol, a monument to arrogance, not sacrifices made, or lessons learned, or greatness.
The sin of the tourist is not to experience what is seen. The sin of the witness is to deny having seen anything at all.
Ian Pounds lives in Kabul. He can be reached at: email@example.com